For some of audience enjoying the musical festivities planned for four days (Sept. 19-22) during the 50th Anniversary of the Integration of Duke University, the events were bittersweet. “Wish we didn’t have to celebrate this occasion,” one woman said as she settled herself at The Carolina Theatre, in anticipation of an evening with the John Brown Big Band, with special guest, Terence Blanchard. “But if we’re going to commemorate something historic, might as well do it with music,” her colleague commented.
Throughout the four-day musical commemoration that is part of the year-long series of events, Duke University students, alumni, faculty and staff, and area residents reveled in the rich history of the university as well as the influences African-Americans have had on the textures of American music. The musical celebration began Thursday night with a spoken-word performance featuring The Black Experience and vocalist Michael Hanna, followed by Friday’s menu headlined by DJ 9th Wonder, continuing with Saturday evening’s jazz concert led by John Brown, the director of Duke’s jazz program, and concluding with a gospel show at Duke Chapel on Sunday.
The Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall, which seats 1,016, provided a fairly intimate venue for the jazz show, which began with a small selection of songs by two Grammy-nominated artists from Durham, husband-and-wife duo, songstress Kate McGarry and jazz guitarist Keith Ganz. The Sunnyside Record performers told the audience of their new CD entitled “Genevieve and Ferdinand,” with an expected release near Valentine’s Day, 2014, then launched into some standards from the 1940s that were not the usual suspects. Of their short program, the most memorable tune was one McGarry herself wrote in homage to her parents and nine siblings. The song, “Ten Little Indians,” more folksy than jazzy, created opportunities for McGarry’s impeccable riffs and ear for floating melodies that build an elegant phrasing that left the audience wanting more. McGarry and Ganz were just the preview, however.
John Brown’s Big Band filled the stage next with the syncopated rhythms that only a well-practiced jazz band can manage. Brown’s 17-piece band beguiles listeners with a taste of classic horn-filled standards that both showcases individual band members with solos, as well as providing the whole band experience. A number of the musicians are Duke University graduates, proving that their leader has well-earned his Grammy nomination for work with Durham-based songstress Nnenna Freelon. The show, filled with both complex renditions of songs like “Voyage” and “Our Delight,” also roused the audience to express their appreciation for the talented musicians.
By the time the headliner of the show, five-time Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard, strode on stage with his gorgeously designed trumpet, the audience was well warmed up. Blanchard, unassuming and gifted, has created the scores for more than 50 films, including all of Spike Lee’s. The two have collaborated throughout the years, enjoying a relationship Blanchard refers to as both rich and rewarding, spanning not only the aforementioned films but also including the 2006 HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Yet scoring for films is not Blanchard’s only forte, nor is he known as only a trumpet player who occasionally is lucky enough to gather film credits.
Blanchard has explored many genres during his career, including heading schools of jazz at the Mancini Institute and the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. An ardent believer in education, he not only works with graduate students on the finer points of creating and playing jazz, but also visits high schools and grammar schools where he inspires younger musicians who have not yet found their way.
On the stage, Blanchard speaks through his trumpet, often waving away the microphone when John Brown asked him to speak. And that trumpet is mellifluous, the long-held notes soaring to the ceiling of The Carolina Theatre and beyond. He entices both shimmering and graceful phrases in tunes like “I’ll Never Smile Again,” then switches seamlessly to bawdy New Orleans street tones in “Lulu’s Back in Town.” By the time he and Brown’s band play their encore selection, “Cherokee,” it is obvious to the crowd that the music will last long after the theater is empty. One imagines the musicians challenging each other to musical games of jazzy chess well into the wee hours of the morning.
Though the evening of music was held to celebrate the integration of Duke University, one of the ongoing struggles of the seemingly never-ending Civil Rights era, Saturday’s revelry seemed more a celebration of the enormous contributions African-American musicians have made to the musical fabric of jazz in the United States since its inception more than two hundred years ago. The fact that the performers at The Carolina Theatre also influence today’s musicians through the power of educational programs that were not available to the typical college student 50 years ago is solid evidence that celebrating the integration of Duke with these four nights of music was the best way to solute the many inroads made during the previous century. That said, as many said during the evening, “hopefully, we will run out of reasons to have to celebrate this occasion in the future.”
A DUKE AND DURHAM MUSIC FESTIVAL, with Terence Blanchard & John Brown Band and Kate McGarry & Keith Ganz’s Duo Palooza (Duke University, Sept. 21 at The Carolina Theatre in Durham).
Celebrating the Past, Charting the Future: Commemorating 50 Years of Black Students at Duke University: http://spotlight.duke.edu/50years/ (official website).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.